Monday, January 29, 2018

Coronations and Calculations

Coronation of Catherine II by Stefano Torelli, 1777.
Helen the Great as Catherine the Great! Also — Ellen Pompeo ... Jane and Megyn ... "Grace and Frankie."
by Denis Ferrara

“FOR GOD’S sake, please do all in your power to keep us from quarreling again for our quarrels always arise from nothing but irrelevant rubbish.  We quarrel about power, never about love.  This is the truth!”

That is part of a letter — one of many — sent by Russia’s Catherine the Great, to her last and most significant lover Grigory Potemkin. (Perhaps, some historians have speculated, they even married.) 

Catherine, German by birth, was a remarkable woman much influenced the The French Enlightenment, which she attempted, mostly with iffy results, to use with benevolence on the Russian people.  She found this tough sledding — the Russians, even the serfs, didn’t really want to be enlightened. 

Catherine has been portrayed onscreen and onstage by a variety of actresses as varied as Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Bergner, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Zeta-Jones and even Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead. Mae and Tallu were just camping it up in “Catherine Was Great” and “A Royal Scandal” respectively.  But director Josef von Sternberg actually thought people were going to take Dietrich seriously in “The Scarlett Empress.” 
Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great in "The Scarlet Empress" (1934).
Mae West in "Catherine Was Great" (1944).
William Eythe and Tallulah Bankhead in "A Royal Scandal" (1945).
Now comes word that Helen Mirren will star for HBO in a miniseries, “Catherine the Great.” So, life is worth living, again!

The great Helen Mirren will play “Catherine the Great" for for HBO.
The series will focus on the tumultuous love between Catherine and Potemkin. The relationship — on, off, hot, cold, full of passion and plays for dominance, lasted 17 years.  (Much has been made of Catherine’s “promiscuity” — the gossips of the time liked to say she had 300 lovers.  Actually, she only had about ten, maybe a couple more than were essentially brief flings.  She was a modern woman in many ways, one of which was dominion over her own body and passions.  After all, she’d been brought to Russia as little more than a child to marry Peter III, who was quite odd. She was entitled to some fun, yes?)

Playing royalty is hardly new to the Helen The Great.  She famously portrayed QE 1 (in the television serial “Elizabeth I”) and II (“The Queen” and “The Audience”).  As well as Titania, Queen of the Fairies in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Princess Emilia in a TV version of “The Little Mermaid,” Queen Charlotte in “The Madness of King George.”  She was also queenly in animation, “The Snow Queen” and “The Prince of Egypt.”  Mirren is nothing if not regally prepared.
Mirren as "The Queen" in 2006.
While waiting for this to happen, I urge you to pick up Robert K. Massie’s massively informative and entertaining 2011 biography, “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.”  This contains a lot of Catherine’s correspondence and her own voluminous notes on herself and her own personality.  She was a woman who always got right to the point. 

In another missive to Potemkin, during one of their contentious separations, she ends. “I’m not angry.  But do me one favor: spare my nerves!"
Apotheosis of the reign of Catherine II (fragment) by Gregorio Guglielmi, 1767.
IN THE 14 years “Grey’s Anatomy” has been on the air, I’ve maybe seen two complete episodes.  It never interested me.  At times I’ve even wondered, “Is that thing still on?”  Yes it is, and apparently doing very well in the ratings, despite the departure of Patrick Dempsey, a couple of seasons back. 

Gregory Harrison had great hands on “Trapper John, M.D."
Hospital dramas just don’t grab me — or at least none have since the good old days of “The Eleventh Hour,” “Ben Casey” and “Doctor Kildare.” (Or the more recent old days of “Trapper John, M.D.” But that had a lot more to do with seeing Gregory Harrison out of his surgical scrubs than saving lives.)

So, given this general indifference I almost passed over reading Ellen Pompeo’s big story in “The Hollywood Reporter” about how she negotiated herself into becoming the highest paid actress in a primetime drama. (I didn’t even know that she is the Grey of “Grey’s Anatomy!”)   It’s a piece “as told to” Lacy Rose, and I am now a great new admirer of Ms. Pompeo, even if I likely won’t ever watch her show.  I loved her voice, candor, humor and realistic approach to her work, her name and fame, her worth, and her advice to other actors, making their way through the minefields.

Pompeo says she is not “chasing other roles” (“Grey’s Anatomy” will go on for at least two more seasons) and doubts she will have a “second life as a movie star.  I’m not Julia Roberts!”  Well, nobody is Julia Roberts anymore.  Not even Julia Roberts. 

Pompeo is only 48 — a kid, as far as I am concerned.  Let’s never forget that Rene Russo was 45 when she had the biggest, sexiest success of her career in “The Thomas Crown Affair.”  That was 1999. So, Ellen’s 48 in 2018 is like, 35, really.  She has plenty of time to be a big movie star.
Ellen Pompeo in “Grey’s Anatomy."
IT IS always amusing to watch somebody reveal themselves, in real time.  These days, thanks to social media, it is almost a daily occurrence, but sometimes it happens the old-fashioned way, like on live TV. 

I do mean steely-eyed Megyn Kelly seeming to go off the rails on Jane Fonda last week. Now, let me say neither woman is a total innocent in this matter.  Jane has been foolishly carrying an annoying nibbling-at-the-heels grudge toward Kelly, ever since the NBC transplant from Fox News dared to ask Fonda about plastic surgery a while back.  Miss F., promoting the new season of “Grace and Frankie” responded “Are we going to talk about that now?” with an irritated expression that spoke volumes. 
But since then, Fonda has made a few remarks about Kelly’s expertise — or lack of — as an interviewer. (To be honest, they were remarks that didn’t get much play.)   Fonda should have known better than to bait the polar bear.   In her life, Jane has shown a lot of heart, but sometimes not much sense.  Kelly, on the other hand, is one canny cookie, who would like to put an Emmy where her heart ought to be.  Neither woman paid attention to the man behind the curtain.  So the Lion got his courage and Dorothy went home, but Jane and Kelly were stuck in Oz, brainless and heartless.

In a totally unprofessional manner, Kelly “defended” herself and for good measure dragged in The Vietnam War and Jane’s controversial activism — the most controversial of which Fonda has apologized for endlessly. Some people thought this might signal the “end” for Kelly, who has struggled with ratings and likeability issues. I doubt it.  She got a lot of publicity, and reminded her conservative fans exactly who she is, and what she believes.  It was calculated.  It didn’t hurt Fonda, either.  Those who won’t forgive won’t forgive, period.

As to the issue of plastic surgery and how to handle such a question, I think back to Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Pauley in 1988. 

Taylor was out promoting her diet book, “Elizabeth Takes Off.” In the middle of chatting over portion size, Pauley suddenly asked if Taylor had had any plastic surgery, to help tighten things up after her weight loss.  The star’s famous circumflex eyebrows raised slightly and she said, with a perfectly straight face, “I had a tiny chin tuck, that’s all.”  That perfectly straight face indicated the subject was closed.

ET in 1988. It was a "tiny chin tick." That's my story, Jane Pauley — next subject!
P.S. On Fonda.  I just finished binging the fourth season of “Grace and Frankie,” having revisited the first three seasons a couple a weeks ago.  I’ve loved this unique show, and found it better than I remembered, deeper, funnier.  Putting Fonda back into comedy was a great move.  Her light touch is still a joy, and recalls all those early films — “Sunday in New York,” “Any Wednesday,” “Barefoot in the Park” and yes, even “Barbarella” — before her name became associated with more than acting.

The 4th season of “Grace and Frankie” takes a somewhat darker turn for Fonda and Lily Tomlin, albeit, full of laughs — and full of money. The characters they play are not your ordinary aging women. (The turn taken by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, the gay ex-hubbies, are profound and reasonably realistic, given their particular circumstances, age and experiences.) 

The joy of this series is how it tackles the inevitable vagaries of encroaching elderliness and shifting relationships, lightly but with a power only realized after the end credits. 
REMINDER!  On Friday, February 2nd at New York’s Majestic Theater (245 West 44th Street) the great life force that was Liz Smith will be celebrated. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and those doors are open to the public. Be there!
Contact Denis here.